I’m on a diet. But, ugh, “diet”. It sounds so Betty Draper. So retro. So, let’s just say I’m trying to eat healthily. But in quite a regimented way. In a way that cuts out food groups and restricts calories, with the ultimate aim of losing weight. So, yeah, a diet, basically. But I can’t say diet, can I? Not among my more enlightened friends and not among my feminist colleagues.
I could just say I’m “eating clean” – I believe that’s what I’m doing, as I am following an eating plan involving kale and seeds published in a 2010 book called Clean & Lean Diet by a man called James Duigan, which I bought second-hand in a charity shop. But “eating clean” implies that I’m someone who thinks that blueberries can cure cancer – and I’m not. I just think that if I eat blueberries instead of KitKats, I might fit into a dress I really like but can no longer wear on account of how the zip won’t do up. The dress is not unrealistically tiny for me; this isn’t a pipe dream – I wore it as recently as Easter 2014 but, in the intervening 18 months, I worked hard and often late at my job and ended up sometimes having three meals from Pret A Manger a day (when stressed, I find Pret’s salty certainty wonderfully soothing). And, if you eat too many Pret sandwiches while also allowing yourself to punctuate your day with “treats” (“15 emails sent means two biscuits!” or “Phew, work’s over, let’s drink a bottle of wine each”), you’ll end up with a dress that doesn’t fit.
And, if you decide that you care about the dress not fitting, if you decide that you felt better before the dress didn’t fit, you’ll want to… well, you’ll want to lose a few pounds or trim down or get healthy or whatever. You’ll remember the well-known words of food writer Michael Pollan: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” And you’ll think, “Ah, how sensible.” But then you’ll realise that you are a person who needs stricter guidelines than that (“What’s ‘too much’? Is a pizza ‘too much’? What about two?"). So, then you’ll try the 5:2 diet, mainly because it seemed to work so effectively for George Osborne, but you’ll realise that it’s unrealistic and miserable. So, you’ll go back to your thrice-a-day Prets. Then, finally, you’ll realise that that although the cover is obnoxious (a woman in a bikini smiling and jumping) and the author deeply annoying, the actual directions issued in the bestselling book Clean & Lean Diet are very similar to Michael Pollan’s thesis. And you’ll eat an egg in the morning and a salmon salad for lunch and chicken and kale for dinner. You’ll cut out booze for a bit. And you’ll actually feel better. You’ll actually kind of like the experience.
Just because I want to wear my dress doesn’t mean that I think you should want to wear my dress. But when we begin to talk about bodies, there’s an implication that one of us knows best
Well, maybe not you. But me. This piece is about me and my diet (yes, let’s just call it a diet). And that’s crucial. Because the dieting woman is like the pregnant woman – her body is suddenly up for discussion. And, in a similar way to how discourse surrounding pregnancy and motherhood can end up pitting women against each other, diet chat engenders division and suspicion.
Just because I want to wear my dress doesn’t mean that I think you should want to wear my dress. But, when we begin to talk about bodies and weight and sizes, there’s an implication that one of us knows best. That thinking is certainly exacerbated by the media’s despicable fat-shaming – read Lindy West’s excoriating chapters on being fat in her memoir, Shrill, for clear-sighted insights on that problem. But it also comes about because many of us find the direction to “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants” too vague and search for more didactic instructions when considering how best to eat.
Clean & Lean Diet is plenty didactic. Duigan makes many spurious claims about the toxicity/health benefits of various foods – acai berries are a “great cellulite blitzer”, for example – and he constantly presumes his readers want to look “like models”. “Coconut oil is hugely popular amongst models thanks to its health and body-boosting benefits,” he writes, and I’m suddenly reminded of Donald Trump.
So, of course, given the often misleading assertions to be found in the “clean eating” scene”, I can see how a sensible and knowledgeable food writer like Bee Wilson could have despaired and found herself being drawn into a row on the subject at the Cheltenham Literature Festival recently. It’s also distressing to consider how the clean-eating phenomenon has been represented on Instagram and social media, with girls and young women encouraged to avoid “bad” foods that they actually need to remain nourished and healthy.
But we shouldn’t pretend that it’s just clean eating; pretty much the whole diet industry – and much of the food industry – is, as clean eaters would say, toxic. Slimming World, the dieting club attended by hundreds of thousands of several sensible women, calls nice foods, like chocolate, “syns” – which reminds you of, you know, sins. And, if you are a woman who spends time online, it’s likely that you’ll come across some sort of fat-shaming childhood obesity panic from the tabloids, a listicle promoting body positivity for women of all sizes and 500 images of skinny teenage models trying to sell you something all before you’ve finished your cereal (or your eggs or your spinach juice or whatever its is you choose to have for breakfast).
I am very lucky. I have never had an eating disorder and I have largely neutral feelings about my body. So the constant messages telling me that I either have to hate my body or love my body don’t ring true for me. I don’t detest my body even when that zip doesn’t do up and, although I like my legs for carrying me about the place, I am probably not going to put a picture of them on social media with an inspirational hashtag.
I don’t love my body. I don’t hate my body. I just live in it. And all I’m trying to do with the kale and the quinoa is to find a way to live in it as comfortably as I can.